To say that the world is a different place in 2021 than it was in 2016, would be an understatement. The past year has turned our daily lives upside down and it is going to be no different for athletes heading to the Olympic Games, a year later than they had hoped and trained for.
And so it will be for Indian badminton star PV Sindhu. At 25 (26, by the time the Games begin) Sindhu is going to be spearheading India’s quest to complete a hat-trick of Games with at least a medal in the sport that has flourished since the turn of the century. Silver medallist at Rio 2016, and the reigning World Champion (albeit that feels like from a different era), Sindhu will be — make no mistake — an athlete that countless fans pin their hopes on once again.
“Back then in 2016, it was a different atmosphere. I didn’t know anything about the feel of competing at Olympics. Now, responsibilities are a lot more but in Tokyo, I just want to go out there and give my 100%. There will be expectations, yes, but I have to focus on my game,” Sindhu, currently ranked No 7 in the world, said in a virtual interaction facilitated by the Sports Authority on Thursday from her base in Hyderabad.
To put things into perspective, the Olympic experience is going to be very unique this time around (and this will be true for almost every shuttler heading into the Games): in 2016, Sindhu featured in 13 tournaments before the marquee tournament in Rio. In 2021, she will go to Tokyo on the back of 16 matches. That’s just three more than the total number of events she was a part of in the lead-up to Rio.
PV Sindhu's record on tour in Olympic years
|Tournaments played before Olympics||Matches played before Olympics*||Win-Loss record before Olympics||Win %|
With tournaments on the BWF Tour getting cancelled left, right and center, match time has been hard to come by. From playing 36 singles matches in the first half of 2016 (and she played a fair few doubles ties too), Sindhu has so far played just 16 in 2021.
But she sees the positive in that situation.
“This is a very good chance to improve my technique and skills, which I am working on and improved too. It’s good that I have time for that. Generally, we just go for a tournament. Come back. Rectify our mistakes. Then again, go for a tournament. We don’t have the time needed to learn new techniques. I hope at the Olympics [you can see the] what I have been working on,” Sindhu said.
Sindhu admits the start of 2021 wasn’t great for her either, playing after a long break in 2020 but her form improved and at All England, she produced one of her best performances in recent times in a win against Akane Yamaguchi. “Swiss and England were really good, I am happy with the improvements in my game,” she added.
Sindhu is also aware that everyone is going to be using this time to read about their competitors’ game. “We know each other’s game, I was a new entry at the Games back then. Now people know me and the way I play. Attacking is my strength because of my height but I’m focusing a lot on defence. The opponents know my strengths so they won’t give me the shuttles to attack, so I have to be prepared to take the opportunity,” she said.
Speaking of her potential rivals for the podium in Tokyo, the big news is the withdrawal of reigning champion Carolina Marin. Given the form the Spaniard was in at the start of the year, this change perhaps marks the most significant for the badminton field.
A familiar foe on the tour, but a friend too since that momentous night in Rio where both created their own piece of history, Sindhu posted a touching video message to Marin. But she is adamant, and rightly so, that Marin’s absence does not necessarily make things easier. Women’s singles in badminton is a field filled with tremendous talent.
“In the women’s circuit, top 1-10 are of the same standard. You can’t take it easy if one player is out with an injury. Tai Tzu-Ying, tricky. Ratchanok Intanon, very skillful. Nozomi Okuhara. Akane Yamaguchi. An Se Young. Really, really good players. Everybody would want to give their 100%. I can’t take it easy, have to keep working hard,” she said.
Another change, and a unique challenge, is that the tour has not witnessed Chinese shuttlers in action this year and the eternal favourites will also come with an element of mystery surrounding their game.
“They have not played for a long time. We have not seen them. Chen Yu (Fei) and He Bing Jiao, the left hander, her skills are good. But in Olympics, it’s completely different, the game, the pressure. You can’t expect easy (rivals),” she added.
The Hyderabadi said training at the Gachibowli Stadium is ideal preparation for the Games.
“I am making sure I get used to the big stadiums where the shuttle comes through and the drift makes a huge difference. That is why I am training at Gachibowli Stadium to make sure the setting is almost similar. There will be AC, sometimes shuttles travel faster... This will make things a bit easy for me in controlling the shuttle. When you have the facilities, why not use them,” she said.
With lack of clarity on many fronts, Sindhu pointed out it has helped her that she has access to top facilities and the support of SAI in terms of her training needs.
National coach Pullela Gopichand’s presence in the background is as much a part of India’s previous two Olympic medals but overseeing Sindhu’s quest to improve, evolve and adopt is coach Park Tae Sang who is expected to be the man driving her campaign in Tokyo. Another change.
“It’s been a year and half since I’m training with Park. I have known for him a long time so when he started as my coach, I was easy to communicate. He is working on my techniques and skills, but it needed time. It’s not to easy to grasp [new things] right away. We are improving every day.
“Sitting behind me as a coach, he has coached me in a few tournaments now so he knows what is going on in my head and that player-coach understanding is important. Sometimes we might get upset, go blank when losing points. He is doing a great job in supporting and motivating me in those moments. We are really working hard on my technique and skills, so you will get to look at all that in the Olympics I hope,” Sindhu added.
In 2016, Sindhu was the ninth seed while Saina Nehwal was the fifth seed and early medal favourite. What transpired in Rio was life-changing for Sindhu. Now, her second trip to the Olympics is clearly going to be vastly different to the one she embarked on as a starry-eyed 21-year-old. Change here, change there, change everywhere. And, come the first Sunday in August, Sindhu’s dream is to change the colour of her Olympics medal to an even brighter shade.
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